The groundbreakers and outliers are leading the way at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards. Kacey Musgraves (radio-free until now) pulls down five nominations, Chris Stapleton (for whom radio is an afterthought) and largely overlooked hitmakers Dan + Shay snag six apiece, while Kane Brown, Luke Combs, Ashley McBryde, LANCO, Jake Owen, Cole Swindell, Chris Janson and Russell Dickerson make their initial major-category appearances. It’s readily apparent, then, that the bubbling under is being recognized—and registering in numerous cases without significant airplay or mainstream recognition.

Give it up for UMG’s Mike Dungan and Cindy Mabe, with a pack-leading 28 nominations, for their long-view artist-development strategy and commitment to artists making music they believe in. Stapleton reels in his second Entertainer, as well as Album (Songs From A Room, Vol. 2), Song (“Broken Halos”) and Male Vocalist, with an additional nod for producer and songwriter. Musgraves—fresh from sweeping the Grammys—takes Album (Golden Hour), Song (“Space Cowboy”) and Female, with an additional nomination as producer and songwriter. Both artists have taken home Album of the Year, suggesting there’s still a place for quality music.

Ironically, if you remove Warner’s Dan + Shay—managed by Sandbox Entertainment’s blazing-hot Jason Owen—and their self-titled third project, Album of the Year is basically UMG’s category. Hard-charging Eric Church and the commercial/critical needle threader Dierks Bentley fill out the category with Desperate Man and The Mountain, respectively.

Sony’s Randy Goodman, who’s made a major commitment to streaming and breaking new acts, has seen measurable success for those efforts. Brown lands in Single of the Year with “Heaven,” while Combs (nominated for Male Vocalist and Best New Male) and LANCO (Duo and Best New Duo) double down, with Mitchell Tenpenny also in New Male. Reigning Group of the Year Old Dominion returns, as does Maren Morris in Top Female, alongside ACM record-setter Miranda Lambert.

Over at Big Machine Label Group, they might change Scott Borchetta’s “code name” to “Suffragette City.” Not only does he have two of the Best New Female nominees in Carly Pearce and Danielle Bradbery, but the Bebe Rexha/Florida Georgia Line collab “Meant to Be” picks up a triple for Song, Single and Vocal Event. Borchetta’s always been big on coloring outside the lines, so his cars in the Vocal Group race are the retro-California country Midland and perennial hitmakers Lady Antebellum. With fresh-off-SNL Male Vocalist nominee Thomas Rhett and FGL in Duo,  Borchetta’s Machine could be firing on all eight cylinders.

BBR Music Group is also manifesting the power of the independent spirit. Not only is Jason Aldean nominated for Entertainer of the Year and Vocal Event with Lambert, he’s already received the massive Artist of the Decade award. With Lindsay Ell’s nom for Top New Female, Jimmie Allen’s for Top New Male, Runaway June’s for Top New Duo/Group and LoCash’s for Top Duo, on top of the Aldean nods, GM Jon Loba shows that you don’t need a major-label framework to impact the ballot.

 Maybe the most thrilling occurrence was John Esposito’s highly eclectic WMG Nashville scoring 18 nominations, a record for the group—and that’s not counting D+S’s Dan Smyers’ four additional writing and production nominations. With Kenny Chesney in Entertainer, Swindell’s “Break Up in the End” and Janson’s “Drunk Girl” in Video, along with McBryde’s pair and D+S’ half-dozen, it’s a good time to be a Springsteen lover. Just ask Espo.

If it seems the same names—Aldean, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban—have a lock on Entertainer, it takes a certain level of execution to hit those marks. Without massive hit singles, matched with ticket-selling impact, it’s hard to compete in this prime category.

But even then, the lack of development of any cogent meaning for some big acts raises the question: WHO are you voting for? While I’ve always argued that stats are fine and facts are undeniable, if there’s no humanity attached, you’ve got a hit single and nothing to care about.

The good news going into this year’s ACMs is the number of first- and second-time nominees. But unless a committee decides who’s going to be on the ballot—and while many cheered the Grammys’ correction, grumbling was heard about how the winners played out—country music has an issue.

Terrestrial radio’s unwillingness to give slots to women, instead playing more of the same basic dude country, also means that even the more creative male artists are having to fight for a space on the playlists. Meanwhile, Musgraves, Stapleton, Eric Church and even Brothers Osborne get theirs dominating things like the ACM Awards, suggesting that either the industry is out of touch with America, or Country radio needs to pay closer attention to the gap.


UMG chief is sitting on top of the world. (9/16a)
Let's be Frank. (9/16a)
And not just in Canadian dollars. (9/16a)
A close reading of star-crossed (9/10a)
The Toronto Raptor strikes again. (9/16a)
A chronicle of the inexplicable.
We make yet more predictions, which you are free to ignore.
2022 TOURS
May we all be vaxxed by then.
Power pop, global glam and the return of the loud.

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